Some of the state's leading environmentalists gathered Monday with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Carol Browner to endorse the re-election of Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Other environmentalists, unhappy with Chiles, stayed home and are threatening to endorse Republican Jeb Bush.
Nat Reed, a Republican environmentalist from Hobe Sound, said he was crossing party lines to endorse Chiles because he has known Chiles and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay for 30 years and believes both men care about Florida's future. Reed has served in various environmental roles for several governors and recently was reappointed by Chiles to serve on the South Florida Water Management District Board.
"They are extraordinary human beings," Reed said. "They love Florida and have embraced more people and listened to more people than anyone."
Reed refused to say bad things about Bush, but several of those who accompanied him to the coalition news conference were not so reticent. They said an election victory by Bush would set environmental causes back more than 25 years.
Browner, appointed by Chiles to head the state's environmental regulation agency, was appointed to take over the federal agency by President Clinton in 1992. She described Chiles and MacKay as men "who care passionately about the environment of this state."
Clay Henderson, spokesman for the Save the Manatee Club, said Bush "would turn the clock back" on efforts to save the state's manatee population. He said Bush has appeared at rallies staged by boating rights groups that oppose speed limits in manatee protection zones.
Mike Sheridan, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, said Bush was the first gubernatorial candidate to refuse an interview with his group in more than 20 years.
Others who endorsed Chiles on Monday were the Sierra Club; the Florida Consumer Action Network; Marjorie Harris Carr, founder of the Florida Defenders of the Environment; Reid Hughes, president of the Florida Environmental Education Foundation; and Richard Batchelor, chairman of the state's Environmental Resource Commission.
Bush, meanwhile, said Chiles and his supporters have lied about Bush's environmental intentions in an effort to "strike fear in people's hearts." Item by item, Bush disputed the claims of environmentalists that he would support offshore oil drilling, end the state's purchase of environmentally endangered lands, pipe water from place to place to provide short-term solutions and allow unchecked development.
"Absolutely not," Bush said. "Those are examples of their distortions. I have focused my campaign on public safety and education, but that doesn't mean I don't care about the environment. It's important to protect our environment."
Some of those who endorsed Chiles, Bush said, are merely being loyal to the governor who appointed them to their positions. If Reed had not endorsed Chiles, it would have been an act of disloyalty, Bush added.
Bush said he would be glad to meet with environmental groups and further discuss the issues. Aides said the League of Conservation Voters asked Bush to meet with them on a day in August when he had other commitments and has not taken the candidate up on his offer to meet with them another time.
Bush met last week with representatives of Save Our Everglades, the Nature Conservancy, the Florida Wildlife Federation, 1,000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Audubon Society and others. Representatives of the groups were absent Monday when other environmentalists endorsed Chiles.
George Barley, leader of Save Our Everglades, said Monday that he is asking members of his group whether they want to endorse a candidate.
"Environmentalists have been telling me for two years that Lawton Chiles is an empty suit when it comes to the environment, but almost all of them are Democrats in their heart of hearts," Barley said. "I am a Republican who voted for and raised money for Chiles four years ago."
Personally, Barley said, he'd find it "very difficult" to support Chiles.
"I have been eyeball to eyeball with him for two years over Florida Bay, and I just got a glassy look and no action, and it's getting worse," he said. "He's a "good ol' boy' kind of governor."
Charles Lee, lobbyist for the Florida Audubon Society, said his group cannot legally endorse anyone and that he personally must remain aloof from both campaigns because of his job.
Lee said he believes environmental progress occurs no matter which political party is in power.
"Those who claim to be the highest friends of the environment at campaign time usually don't live up to expectations," he said. "And those who are perceived as having negative potential for the environment don't end up being nearly as bad as they are advertised."